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Ottoman Language Drive Draws Strong Objections in Turkey

FILE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan listens during a news conference in Riga, Oct. 23, 2014.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stirred fierce criticism Tuesday with plans to make lessons in Ottoman Turkish mandatory in high schools, prompting one opposition politician to declare that an army could not force his daughter to learn the language.

Erdogan said Monday that Ottoman, an old form of Turkish using Arabic script that was replaced by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk upon foundation of the secular republic in 1923, should be taught in schools to prevent younger generations from losing touch with their cultural heritage.

"Erdogan's concern is not teaching the Ottoman language. ... His real aim is a settling of accounts with secularism and the republic," Akif Hamzacebi, spokesman for the main opposition CHP in parliament. "Erdogan actually wants to revive the Arabic alphabet in Turkey."

Opponents accuse Erdogan of behaving like a modern-day sultan, with his Islamist ideology and intolerance of dissent taking Turkey far from Ataturk's secular ideals.

"There are people who do not wish Ottoman to be taught and learned," Erdogan told a meeting of Turkey's religious council. "Regardless of whether they want it or not, Ottoman will be taught and learned in this country."

His supporters, who carried him to victory in Turkey's first popular presidential election in August with 52 percent of the vote, see him as a champion of the religiously conservative working classes, standing up to a secular elite.

His comments intensified a debate triggered last week when Turkey's Education Council decided that Ottoman should be taught in Islamic high schools and as an elective in other secondary schools.

"Even if your whole army comes, they can't force my daughter into Ottoman lessons," said opposition politician Selahattin Demirtas, whose HDP party has fought for the rights of Turkey's 15 million Kurds, including education in their mother tongue.

Kurdish is still not taught in Turkish state schools.

The Egitim-Sen union of teachers and academics accused the education council of neo-Ottomanism and of trying to reshape the school system along religious lines.

Other opponents of the plans dismissed them as farcical. "Are we going to wear a fez while we're learning Ottoman?" wrote one critic on Twitter.

The fez was also banned by Ataturk as part of his drive to turn an ailing Ottoman theocracy into a Western-style secular state.

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